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Science Matters

The Higgs hunt is over, but a new journey has begun


For a particle physicist, being at CERN at this moment must be an unforgettable experience.

Well, there had been rumours floating around the CERN that an announcement to this effect was going to be made. And we have been discussing among ourselves what it would mean. When the announcement was being made around 9 am here, I was in the audience. I had goosebumps. For any particle physicist who has been Higgs-hunting for the last 30 years, this was like a dream come true. It is something we have been dreaming of and aiming for. The entire collider experiment hinged on this one dream. I have been lecturing around India for the last few years about why we, particle physicists the world over, are so passionate about this study and this impending discovery, what it means to the world. And the most fascinating thing is that even now this is not the end of the journey. The hunt is perhaps over but the period of analysis now begins.

What was your involvement in the worldwide effort to pin the God particle down?

If you don't mind, please do not call it the God particle. It is the Higgs Boson, and its existence is very important to the theory of particles and interactions among them...but that is all! I have to clarify that I am not an experimental physicist so I was not part of the collaboration that conducted the experiment. I am part of the worldwide community of theorists who have been working in the background on how to look for the particle, how to establish its properties once it is found, how to analyse findings theoretically and so on. I have been working since 1976 on the Higgs Boson and have written over 60 papers with the word 'Higgs' in the title! Of course, I am one among the hundreds who have done so. We have all been contributing in some sense to the question: how do we find it? I would call it a triumph of the community of particle physicists.

For the non-scientist how would you explain the momentousness of this occasion?

The Standard Model has been developed brick by brick over the last 50-60 years and has provided us with the possibility to provide a glimpse into the early few minutes in the life of the universe, explaining how matter came into being. The Model's predictions had been verified in almost all its aspects, but we had not seen direct evidence of this additional boson, whose existence is essential for us theorists to be able to make these calculations at all! If you are building a house of cards and there are just the two left to pile at the top and if they fall through the entire edifice crumbles. If Higgs Boson had not fitted in, the model itself would have collapsed. Not just for particle physics, this discovery has tremendous importance for all of us. One, it confirms many aspects of our basic understanding of the fundamental building blocks of the universe and how they interact. These high energy experiments help us confirm a theoretical framework which can analyse what happened at the beginning of the universe. And not just that, it will help us find out what is happening to the universe today. We are actually grappling with the truth of nature and finding this particle confirms a big part of our understanding. This discovery is up there, with relativity and quantum mechanics.

Now the particle has been found, what next?

Now we have to look at how to establish this discovery, what future pathways towards the truth it will lead us to. We have to ask if this is indeed the Standard Model Higgs Boson or is it something slightly different. In principle, it may hold the key to information as to what is beyond the Model. In three weeks, I will be lecturing in Vietnam on 'Beyond the Standard Model through the Higgs Boson Window'. And the topic was decided even before the discovery! I am also a member of the worldwide group of eight scientists who made inputs for the European Strategy Report for future facilities in high energy physics in the context of a linear collider. We've focused on how precision studies of this particle will show us the way ahead in high energy physics.

You are an activist in the field of gender issues in science. Were women well represented in this very ambitious effort at CERN?

You know, in this one sense, the field of high energy is unique. It has a large number of women in it. Yesterday when the announcement was made, there was one woman and one man on the stage from two different teams - Joe Incandela and Fabiola Gianotti. This was not by design, it was natural, which is the way it ought to be. Especially in the experimental field, the number of women is high. But among theorists, there could still be more.
malini. nair@timesgroup. com

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